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The mystery of fake news

A new law that gives government the mandate to determine truthfulness of news would mean entering into an era of ever increasing control

The mystery of fake news

“You are fake news!”, shouted Trump as Jim Acosta, CNN’s White House correspondent, asked him a question at President Elect’s first ever press conference after the US elections. “Your organisation is terrible…it’s a disgrace, and I think they should apologise,” he said just before going into a shouting match with Acosta.

In the beginning of this press conference, Trump had asserted that he respected all news organisations “except for BuzzFeed” and went on to call BuzzFeed “a failing pile of garbage”.

This is neither a lone example nor the only instance where a popular political leader called out a particular media establishment or a group of media companies for their ‘misdeeds’, ‘wrongdoings’, or ‘corruption’. They were called out mainly for their editorial stance towards a particular brand of politics, or simply for their journalistic work.

Closer to home, the leader of the ruling party Pakistan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf, and now the prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, alleged during his campaign Jang Group’s involvement in all sorts of crimes, including money laundering, corruption, and manipulation of politics. “Did they have the right to conduct my media trial?” he asked in one extremely charged political gathering, claiming that the network was working at the behest of opposing political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

Imagine now if these leaders, who have ended up holding the highest offices, are tasked with identifying and curbing ‘fake news’. How will they define it? Would political perspectives matter? If so, could they ever lead to a neutral decision that wouldn’t affect media freedoms? These are some of the questions that point towards the dangers of any potential policy decisions aimed at ‘grading’ news content.

Unfortunately, the other side of story isn’t any less taxing.

Political disinformation is rampant, and unlike the popular belief that only social media platforms are peddling ‘fake news’, mainstream media outlets are also highly susceptible to falling for hoaxes and disinformation.

“A look at the government’s fake news buster Twitter handle can help one understand what kind of information the government is interested in debunking. A law that deals with misinformation in Pakistan is likely to simply become a tool of discrediting political opponents of the government,” says Advocate Salwa Rana.

Be it the miracles of a magical ‘water car’, or the false claims of political involvement in child pornography, disinformation is likely to reach millions through the mainstream media. It could prove extremely dangerous in many cases, in fact dangerous enough to be listed as ‘one of the greatest threats to human society’ at the World Economic Forum in 2013, in broadly the same category as the nuclear threat and climate change.

In India, for instance, according to a BBC report, 31 people have been brutally lynched in two years due to rumours based on disinformation that started through social media platforms. The questions then arise, should our nation be left at the mercy of ‘fake news’? Shouldn’t the government, in the interest of public-at-large, take stringent policy measures to protect the citizens from this menace?

Unfortunately, a criminal law for such an issue can have its own grave implications.

In Singapore, Protection from online Falsehood and Manipulation Act just came into force – the Act requires online platforms — including social networking, search engine and news aggregation services — to issue corrections or remove content that the government deems false. Thus, it makes the government the arbitrator of truth. Singapore ranks 151 among 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, which then very well demonstrates the impact that this law might have on press freedoms. Even in Germany, a relatively well developed democracy, the anti fake news law, called NetzDG, that gives sites a 24-hour deadline to remove banned content or face fines of up to 50 million euros, is now under review after it resulted in removal of too much online content. In Malaysia, criminalisation of fake news was done around elections and there was widespread speculation that the law was simply an attempt to control political speech.

Pakistan’s own history with manipulation of legal instruments, to retain control of narratives is well documented. The implementation of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) and its use as a tool to intimidate, coerce and silence journalists, activists and political dissidents is now a well-established fact. In this scenario, a new law, especially one that gives the government or state authorities the mandate to determine truthfulness of news would mean entering into an era of ever increasing control.

“A law to control misinformation in Pakistan will lead to an ever more stringent control of political narratives. Opposing voices, political and ideological dissent could be criminalised. Important news coming through whistleblowers and inside sources could be discredited and penalised”, says Advocate Salwa Rana, who leads a legal aid centre focused on digital expression. “A look at the government’s infamous fake news buster (Twitter handle) can help one understand what kind of information the government is interested in debunking. A law that deals with misinformation in Pakistan is likely to simply become a tool of discrediting political opponents of the government”.

The question of effective implementation of a fake news or disinformation law is also a pertinent one.

Also read: The roots of disinformation

“We have to understand that digital disinformation isn’t something that can be dealt with traditional regulatory approaches. The scope of the issue is too huge. Even if one overlooks the possibility of abuse of law, the sheer magnitude of regulating the flow of information online is impossible. Digital disinformation doesn’t just circulate through open and public platforms. In fact, WhatsApp, a private messenger, is one of the biggest contributors to this flow. How can any method of regulation work effectively when the content is so often private and secure?” says Sadaf Khan, a digital and media rights advocate. “Such regulation is a slippery slope. A solution has to be led by the information consumers themselves.”

In the 2013 Global Risks report, the World Economic Forum used the phrase ‘digital wildfire’ to define digital disinformation and warned of its potential to lead to ‘a failure of global governance’ and ‘wreak havoc in the real world’. The two values that the report mentions multiple times are ‘collaborative efforts among stakeholders’ and promotion of ‘a new and critical media and information-literacy among the general public’ – values that are currently missing in Pakistan and require urgent attention.

Asad Baig

Asad Baig
Asad Baig is an Islamabad-based journalist. He is the founder and the executive director of Media Matters for Democracy and the editor of Digital Rights Monitor. He tweets at @asadbeyg”

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